St. John, Virgin Islands - 2004
Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station - St. John National Park
St John, VI
We had a fellow Appalachian Trail club (PATH) member tell us about a volunteer gig that she had done in the Virgin Islands. It sounded great, so I set my sights on the trip and Rhonda and I planned to take the trip as soon as we retired. We retired in August and September of 2003, sold our house and moved to our place in the Virginia mountains. We contacted the organization director and got a spot as a volunteer for early March.
We describe the experience of getting to the location much like the instructions on the CBS program “The Amazing Race”. After getting reservations with the airlines, you drive the two and a half hours to the Charlotte airport, park the vehicle in the long term satellite parking and take the shuttle bus back to the terminal. Once we arrived in St. Thomas, we got a shuttle to the ferry docks in Charlotte Amolie and took the ferry to Cruz Bay on St. John's. We made a phone call to the camp once we got off the ferry and they instructed us to take one of the pickup truck taxi to the restaurant called Shipwreck Landing in Coral Bay and call from there and they would come to pick us up. We ate the remainder of the items we packed to tide us over while riding the taxi to the rendezvous point.
The taxi was a pick up truck with benches along the sides and a canvas roof. Everyone had their luggage on the floor at their feet. It was dusk as we started our trip down the curvy and sometime pot holed tropical mountain road. It was a rather long trip because the taxi had to go into a number of resorts off the main road. There were several times the driver had to stop or go around donkeys or goats in the road. We finally reached the restaurant and asked to use the phone to call for our final ride. The final leg of the ride from Coral Bay was two-thirds paved road and about a mile or so of a rough dirt road. We were starting to wonder where we were going to end up. We arrived in camp after 10 o'clock and some of the volunteers showed us to the kitchen where we could fix a sandwich and then escorted us to the cabin to which we would be assigned.
The camp was much like a summer camp with a central dining, restrooms and shower facilities. The sixteen by thirty-two feet cabins had walls that were half screened. Most of them were divided in half with staff in the back and barracks style sleeping quarters in the front. A few had the back half divided into half again. The front of some of the cabins were made into rooms for paying vacationers.
We were at VIERS for 17 days and really enjoyed the adventure. The volunteers we worked with ranged in age from 20 to 76, were at VIERS for periods varying from a few weeks to several months, and all worked together very well. The work assignments were mostly based on supporting the two student groups (U Mass and Manhattan College) that were there during our second week, either getting the camp ready for them, cooking and cleaning for them, or cleaning and laundry after they were gone. The rules of camp are simple and mostly based on the limited water supply: 1 three minute shower a day, toilets flushed on a limited basis, and everyone puts in 4 hours of work or goes home.
Chris and I cleared and hauled brush for the first few days, getting a site ready for a new hydroponics project. Once the student groups arrived, I was assigned to the kitchen for desserts and salads while Chris continued to work on clearing brush plus he became the campfire master, gathering wood and starting the nightly fire. There were other jobs sprinkled in here and there. One of which was cleaning gutters. Gutters on the more a dozen building was the source of water for the 60,000 gallon partiality underground cistern We had no trouble getting in our 4 hours and were able to work a few extra hours in order to "bank" some time so we had some extra days off after the students were gone.
Greater and Little Lamshure Bays are just a few minutes walk from the camp and are wonderful spots for swimming and snorkeling. We found that after an hour of cooling off in the ocean, the short shower was quite enough. Chris was able to spend one day out on the snorkel boat with the Manhattan students, snorkeling and getting a few underwater pictures from several different areas around the island.
We hiked several beautiful trails. Some of the park hiking trails started just a short distance from VIERS; others involve either a walk to the main road and taking either a bus ride (if you're lucky and timed it right) or a hitch-hike to another part of the island. The trail were marvelous in that all the vegetation was totally different from other hiking trails we had experienced. One of the trails started up on the main road and ended down at the ocean at the site of an old sugar plantation. The trail had a lot of interpretive signs identifying the trees and some historic site ruins. On several occasions we hitchhiked into town (resort village) to see what was there and get some post cards and a souvenir or two. After spending a bit of time in town, we were glad for the remote peacefulness of VIERS and Lamshure Bay.
Costs for us were limited to transportation: airfare, parking, shuttles, ferry from St Thomas to St John, and taxi as far as it would go toward VIERS, about $600 each for us. (six hundred dollars for 17 days in a tropical paradise We did do a bit of grocery shopping before leaving home to share some special treats with the other volunteers, but that wouldn't have been necessary - the meals at VIERS were good and plentiful.
From January through May VIERS mostly hosts student groups. In the summer months, they do water safety and environmental camps for local groups of younger kids. The temperature doesn't vary greatly, but summer brings higher humidity and fewer cool breezes to cool the cabins at night (there are fans). Late summer and the fall is hurricane season. Because of the southern location in the Caribbean, most hurricanes go north of the island. Some storms are desirable in order to help fill the cisterns when there are long dry spells. St. John's is two-thirds Virgin Island National park. This one of the many things that make it better than St. Thomas.
(This was the first of five trips to St. Johns, VI)